WASHINGTON — US Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., heads the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, where he is fighting, amid Democratic objections, to freeze Obama administration's planned troop cuts.
The House-passed version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would roll back planned end strength cuts, nudging up the Army's active-duty force from 475,000 to 480,000, the Marine Corps by 3,000 and the Air Force by 4,000. But it hinges on a funding mechanism opposed by the White House, the Pentagon and the Senate Armed Services Committee that raids the emergency wartime spending account by $18 billion to pay for manpower, ships and jets the administration did not request.
As the military stretches across a range of missions around the globe, Heck is among Republican lawmakers who say now is not the time to cut troop strength.
"The op-tempo has not slowed down," Heck told Defense News on July 14. "We can't expect the current force, those that remain, to pick up the slack and deploy even more."
Q. There's long been a tension in military budgets between hardware and controlling personnel costs. Where does the House NDAA come down and how well does it deal with that tension?
A. I think we have done a good job in the House version of the bill and with our Senate colleagues striking that balance. As the chairman of the military personnel subcommittee, obviously my bias is with manpower. While it is important to have the next, greatest weapons system, if you don't have someone to pull the trigger, it doesn't do anything for you. As we get into a more competitive economy, the ability to recruit and retain the best and brightest is going to depend on having a competitive benefits package that we can offer, not just for those aspiring to be in the military, but those in the military. We don't want to lose them to the private sector.
Q. Some Democratic colleagues criticize that by raising end-strength, OCO is being short-changed, that it's ultimately going to result in a hollow force and that it could create a situation where the Army has to cut end-strength 30,000 in a single year. Are they wrong?
A. I don't necessarily disagree with Ranking Member [Susan] Davis's comments in the mark-up, I don't disagree that yes, if we increase end-strength this year without a commitment to maintain that end-strength in the out-years—which means not just from the personnel cost, but he readiness cost of those individuals—we will have a hollow force. But it was important that we send a message to the Pentagon, that the House believes we are reaching a critical level in manpower, and that short of repealing sequester or addressing the impact of sequester, we cannot go to 450,000 or 420,000 for a total active duty Army. So we have to plant a flag and say this is where we think the lowest end-strength is for active-duty Army and active-duty Marines, based on what we see going on around the world and the missions we ask our troops to execute.
Q. Is the House making that statement without paying for that increased end-strength?
A. We're paying for it in the House bill. The increased end-strength in the House bill is paid for in the House bill. So we'll see what happens in the negotiations.
Q. It's paid for with the $18 billion that's the sticking point, and we've already seen the folks in the Senate talk about increased end-strength but not support that same method. Is there a path toward a compromise?
Q. What are the other priorities for you, and are they some of the more contentious issues?
A. The four big areas that I consider in our mark are pay raise/troop strength, commissary reforms, military health reform and [Uniform Code of Military Justice] reform. Other than the end-strength/pay-raise, I don't think the other three are really contentious. We're working really well with Senate staff. [Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chair] Sen. [Lindsey] Graham and I have had several conversations, and there will be some tweaks, but I don't think they'll be contentious.
Q. You're past the point where you're trading personnel for equipment. There's no chance of victimizing over her to pay over there?
A. I don't believe so. The end-strength we put into the HASC remains it isn't because we have to pay for another [Littoral Combat Ship] or another F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter].
Q. Is there any way to get at that pay raise without that extra money, which the Senate and the White House say they don't like?
A. I don't want to tip my negotiating strategy with the Senate, but I think there's plenty of opportunity to address those issues.
Q. HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry's argument for the funding strategy is related to readiness, but links readiness to modernization. Are you sensitive to that argument?
A. Certainly. Readiness is an all-encompassing term. It's making sure we have the right body in the right billet, with the right training, the appropriate equipment and the appropriate exercise. On the materiel side, its not just modernization but recapitalization too. Fifteen years of war is taking a toll on the equipment we already have in the military. Even if we aren't coming up with the next generation of a system, the legacy system we continue to use needs to be recapitalized. So there are a lot of pieces to that readiness and there needs to be that balance. From a from personnel-centric position, you just can't just keep spending money on the next generation of a weapon system without investing in the person who is operating that system,
Q. We're going to go into recess, you have a race to run, and you're running for Senate mMinority lLeader's seat. Why are you leaving all this for the musty old Senate?
A. Because I think there is a lot of opportunity to work on the SASC and that the knowledge and experience from working with 435 members, leverage that to work with 100 members.
Q. How much do the military issues resonate back home with voters?
A. They're a critical issue with voters. We have Nellis Air Force Base, the [Air Force] Weapons School, Creech [Air Force Base], which is responsible for a lot of the [remotely piloted aircraft] operations. We have Hawthorne Army Depot and Naval Air Station Fallon, the home of Top Gun. We have 300,000 veterans who call Nevada home, and they are still engaged on national security issues, so the issues related to active duty or retiree side.
Q. Does national security occupy the space it should in the election? As we sit here, Senate Democrats have voted against their defense appropriations bill, and Republicans are calculating it will hurt them, but will it?
A. I think it will. I can speak for what it means for Nevada. It's a significant loss of funds to Nellis, Creech and Fallon. National Security itself has been the number one or two issue as I talk to folks in Nevada over the past several months. They see whats continuing to happen around the globe, but more importantly they see what's happening in our own country. We had San Bernardino, our neighbor to the West. We saw what just happened in Orlando, and especially in southern Nevada when we knew the 9/11 hijackers spent some time in Las Vegas, when we know ISIS has a video that has the Las Vegas strip prominently depicted that people are concerned. They realize when you come from a state that's so dependent on travel and tourism, national security is a big issue. Anything that gives people pause to wanting to take a trip has a significant impact on the economy.
Q. The seat you're seeking is also a pivotal one for control of the Senate. What does that mean to you, and do you have any worries about the down-ballot impact of a Donald Trump candidacy?
A. Certainly we realize that this is a critically important seat as far as who's going to have a majority in the Senate, and I think that regardless of who the occupant of the White House is, it will be important to have a Republican senate, especially as we move forward with Supreme Court nomination proceedings. I'm focused on making sure I'm the best candidate to represent the state of Nevada. As we travel around the state and talk to folks about what's important to them — and invariably its jobs and the economy, national security, healthcare and education—I can talk to them about the fact that I've actually lived and worked in all of those areas.
Q. At the same time, your opponent is Hispanic, Donald Trump's statements on Hispanics are well known. As strong as you are on the concerns of constituents, are you concerned the numbers might just be against you?
A. We have spent the past several years building incredible relationships in the minority community, whether it be in my district, which is 19 percent Latino and 16 percent Asian-American, so we are relying on the relationships in those communities to stay strong into the next race. People might hear what's being said by others, but they'll say, I know Joe, and that's not how he feels—or he's shown that's not his position. In 2014, I took 40 percent of the Latino vote in my congressional race, and that's the highest Latino-vote-getter in our state, other than our governor, who is a Latino.
Q. I have to ask, because this has been a fairly historic year for military personnel policy, as far as the inclusion of women in combat roles, and the new direction with transgendered troops. It's often a Republican position the military gets used to conduct social experiments and shouldn't be. Where are you on all this?
A. My primary concern isn't the women's service. The DoD to the best of their ability did their due diligence. I was disappointed that they discarded the Marine Corps study. I had the researchers in here, and as a medical guy, I know how to do research. Those guys came in here and we walked through the study to make sure it was statistically valid. I thought it should be given more deference. I've served in a combat zone with women, and we've had women serve in combat zones, and the idea of putting them in infantry, doing a convoy operation though a hostile situation as an 88M [truck driver], in a firefight, they're still becoming a rifleman. My concern was that we have gender-neutral requirements that were not lessened. The process they used was a valid process and they kept the [armed services] committees well informed of what they were doing. On the transgender issue they did not, and that's my concern. They did not keep my committee informed of the process, and in fact we got no official head's up notice. That's not the way they should be operating.
— Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.